I loved how “Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger” starts with one expectation and quickly takes a left turn into something completely different. What inspired this particular story?
The western as a genre has a rich and deep body of tropes to draw upon. That richness and depth does so much work for the writer—the scenery’s already in the reader’s mind, the sets, the atmosphere, the costumes. A reader brings all of that into the story with her, and that translates to, as you said, expectation. As the storyteller, I benefit from that immensely: a town, already fully furnished and populated by the collective memory of westerns, by other people’s imaginations. I imagined that I was, in a sense, dropping into that collective, composite Western Story, and then telling a story on top of that story.
The story is a blend of western, humor, a hint of science fiction, a dash of meta-pop culture commentary. It challenges the tropes of what it means to be a “gunslinger,” perhaps even what it means to be a telepath. Many feel that tropes are best used when broken down and rebuilt. How do you feel the use of tropes influences your writing?
Tropes are tools, but they’re also artifacts. They carry in them a historical record, patterns of use. Even the most well-worn of tropes (or maybe especially those) encodes information about what has worked before, about stories, about minds enjoying stories, about how we process stories. Sometimes a trope is something to be steered away from, because it’s too familiar, the information encoded is too familiar, it carries with it associations that aren’t helpful or deaden the reader’s interest—an analogy might be background music, a symphonic score whose emotional impact has been diminished with too much time or repetition. Other times, though, a trope can be the artifact that reveals something timeless, a truth about stories that is worth re-examining in present day. And still other times, an artifact can have a feature that can be re-engineered for a new purpose.
The tight, snappy prose carried me to the finish; it was funny, vibrant, and surreal by turns. The short scenes also lend themselves well to the narrative voice. How much thought do you give the narrative style of a particular piece? Do you set out to write in a certain voice or do you let the story go its own way and hope the voice fits?
Often it’s the voice that announces itself. Just a line or two. But if I hear it, and it sounds real, I try to follow it. To be honest, this isn’t always the way it goes—but the stories that work out most often start this way.
In addition to being a successful novelist and short story writer, you are a story editor on Westworld. What are your thoughts on writers exploring different creative outlets for their works? Do you feel your work in one venue (such as short stories) carries over to another (work as a story editor or novelist)?
Westworld was a huge learning experience, and I’m so grateful to the show runners and HBO for giving me the opportunity to work on it. Going into Westworld, I had a kind of low-level anxiety, not even totally articulated at the time, that I might somehow lose track of my own voice. But TV writing is such a team sport, and is so different from writing prose, that I think it’s actually benefitted my own writing immensely. I’ve sort of cross-trained in a new discipline, which has taught me some new ways of looking at story, both in terms of process and in terms of the kinds of stories I want to tell in my own work, and the lack of overlap has helped to keep the two quite separate in many ways. So they’re feeding off each other in a good way.
What first inspired you to try your hand at genre fiction? How did you first come to dip your toes in the rich worlds of SF/F/H?
Not on purpose. When I first started writing short stories in 2001, I just wrote what came out. It wasn’t until a few stories in that I realized I was writing science fiction, and speculative fiction, and doing things with genre conventions. It’s what’s in my head, I think. Watching cartoons, playing D&D, video games, all of it made me sort of interested in meta-fiction, of not just the stories but the frames around the stories, the rules for telling stories, the stuff just inside and just outside the boundary layer separating the fictional world and the real one.
What’s next for Charles Yu? What other projects can eager fans look forward to in the coming year?
I’m actually writing for another show now—a new drama for HBO created by Alan Ball, who created Six Feet Under. That series, and specifically its finale, was one of the stories that inspired, in a very far-off and dreamy way, the idea of someday maybe trying to write for television and film someday. It’s really a dream job in many ways. I’d love to develop my own projects for TV and film someday as well, based on my own novels and short stories. But first things first—I have to finish the novel I’ve been working on for a few years now, called The Book of Wishing.
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